Saturday 8 September 2012

Make a Note on Your Calendar: Check Out the September 21st Issue of Science

It might be nothing. But just the same I'm gonna wanna see the September 21st issue of Science. That's because yesterday I received a request to comment on my feelings about the recent findings from Roc de Marsal--that the Neanderthal child long believed to have been purposefully buried wasn't, whether or not I saw this as a vindication of my ancient efforts, and my assessment of the role of new techniques, such as micromorphology, to document site formation processes in aid of the arguments. The Science writer who did the asking mentioned that he'd just returned from a week at La Ferrassie, where the Roc de Marsal team are presently working with the same goals as their previous project. Add it up. La Ferrassie + Roc de Marsal + Science + the comments of one might be said to have foreseen it all = major story. But I could be wrong. You know... Mind befuddled by years of bitterness, suddenly brought into the spotlight, imagining the glory that never was, and all that. It could be nothing. But what if...?

     For the record, here's my statement to 'the press.'
I'm very proud of Sandgathe, Dibble, Goldberg and the rest for having the audacity to undertake their re-examination of the Roc-de-Marsal burial, and of the French authorities who have shown some flexibility in allowing such a project. I'm especially happy that I can claim to have had a role in paving the way for their work. As for the techniques that have been deployed in support of the new excavations at Roc de Marsal, and now at La Ferrassie, if the palaeoanthropological community is more likely to accept revisions of erroneous claims based on new techniques, I'm all for it. However, the fact remains that there never was sufficient evidence of any kind to support the claim of purposeful burial in any of these cases, a point I thought I'd made forcefully in my two papers on the matter. Unfortunately I was one of the few to have seen it that way and in reality I've been dismissed by the majority of palaeoanthropologists for the past 23 years. I'm afraid that a few ambiguous in-text citations bearing my name in the present is hardly what I'd call a vindication. 
Yep. Bitter. But a justified bitterness. A well-steeped bitterness. Tannic, you might say. Tannins? Wine? brb... That's better. Bitterness goes better with wine. 'A drink is like a hug'® I always say!
Roc de Marsal (Dordogne, France). From
Roc de Marsal Neanderthal child
Roc de Marsal contained the partial remains of a Neanderthal youth that was claimed to have been purposefully buried. There never was any good evidence for it, although the remains were found 'in a depression' and they were articulated for the most part. In 1989 and again in 1999 I said as much. One of my major contentions has always been that depressions can occur naturally for a good number of reasons, and that depressions in caves and rockshelters--which already tend to preserve bone well--are places where vertebrate specimens can be expected to preserve extraordinarily well, as compared with those that decayed on a plane surface under the same depositional regime.
     Moreover, the excavators described the 'fill' of the 'grave' as being just like all the rest of the breakdown sediments in the cave--i.e. no new stratum created at the time of the 'burial' which could be seen to be distinct from the sediments into which the 'grave' was dug and from those sediments that accumulated naturally after the 'grave' was filled in. Given the propensity for nature to create depressions, that new stratum is one of the only--if not the only--way that one could be certain that a purposeful burial has occurred. [My colleagues complain that this is rarely the case even in modern burials, and that they shouldn't be held to such a standard. My only response to that is: such thinking has given us the myth to end all myths about the Neanderthals.] Sandgathe et al. excavated at Roc de Marsal expressly to recover as much information about the depositional circumstances of the remains as was possible. It was only good fortune that the original excavators left the cave deposits adjacent the burial for the perspicacious Sandgathe and the rest of the équipe to study.
     Those I'd give anything to call my Champions [sense #3 below*] will no doubt have a far more difficult time at La Ferrassie, where the remaining profile, the témoin, is well away from the area where the skeletal remains were recovered. Nevertheless, their efforts will not go unrewarded, especially since they're attempting to work out the depositional history of the site as a whole, something which has been lacking in previous work at that site.
La Ferrassie, témoin, or 'witness profile.' The Neanderthal remains were found in the lowest levels shown here. From our friends at Wikipedia.
New excavations at La Ferrassie at the close of the 2011 season. From

La Ferrassie I
     La Ferrassie is, perhaps, 'ground zero' in the debate about whether or not the Neanderthals buried their dead [if you can call one voice crying in the wilderness a 'debate']. There, in the early twentieth century [and into the later second half] a series of skeletal remains were excavated, beginning with the early discovery of an almost complete skeleton, La Ferrassie I.
     La Ferrassie is also claimed to have been the location of a veritable Neanderthal cemetery, based on the inferences of the early excavators. You may remember the 'nine mounds' from your introductory anthropology courses. I predicted that these would eventually be found to have been the result of cryoturbated sediments, which can take the form of wavy strata when viewed from the side. Indeed, the profile that J.-L. Heim published shows these wavy sediments in profile, presumably redrawn from the original, with the crests of the waves almost a meter above their bases. I look forward to the results of the current excavations with glee.
Early 20th century plan of the La Ferrassie 'cemetery.' From our friends at  Wikipedia
*cham·pi·on noun \ˈcham-pē-ən\
1: warrior, fighter
2: a militant advocate or defender
3: one that does battle for another's rights or honor
4: a winner of first prize or first place in competition; also : one who shows marked superiority

Thanks for dropping by! If you like what you see, follow me on Twitter, or friend me on Facebook. You can also subscribe to receive new posts by email or RSS [scroll to the top and look on the left]. I get a small commission for anything you purchase from if you go there using any link on this site. There's a donate button, too. Your generous gift will always be used to augment the site and its contents.


  1. Interesting developments. But doesn't Science usually have a press embargo on publications, or are comments for News and Views (or whatever feature) not covered by the embargo?

  2. Hey.
    LIke I said. Perhaps it's nothing. But. No embargo mentioned. Just this to set the context:
    'Last month I visited the new excavations at La Ferrassie codirected by Harold Dibble and Alain Turq, and we are now planning a short article for our Sept 21 issue on the work there as well as the new questions about Neandertal burial being raised by Harold's side of the team. I assume that you have seen the paper published last year in JHE on the Roc de Marsal chilid, but have attached it just in case.'
    It's got my spider senses tingling...

  3. Is it me, or is that body lying face down in that picture?

    because if it is, some authors have a lot of explaining to do to demonstrate that this is evidence of ritual burial.


Thanks for visiting!

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.